Sunday, August 24, 2008

America's Founding "Values"

It's often said that America was founded on "Judeo-Christian" values. This statement is somewhat fairer and more accurate than "America was founded as a 'Christian Nation.'" However, left alone, it still is not entirely accurate and has the effect of trying to exclude those of us who aren't Bible believing Christians or Jews from America's heritage. On the other hand those who argue America was intended to be a wholly secular Enlightenment nation distort history just as much. The truth is somewhere in between: America was founded on a confluence of three value systems, and as such was founded to be a pluralistic nation within the confines of the American Creed -- the Declaration of Independence (which in turn was constructed from those three value systems).

So what are those three systems? One is indeed biblical Judeo-Christianity. The second is Enlightenment rationalism. And the third is a "noble-paganism," a Stoic sense of virtue that draws its inspiration from Greco-Roman antiquity. As Thomas Jefferson summed up the value synthesis regarding its inspiration on the Declaration of Independence:

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. ...

In that letter Jefferson also said: "All American Whigs thought alike on these subjects." It was the Whigs who synthesized these value systems into their own "Whig-republican" culture or worldview.

The original proposals for the Great Seal also well illustrate this dynamic. The "Judeo-Christian" promoters, obviously, often stress Franklin's original one:

"Moses standing on the Shore, and extending his Hand over the Sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh who is sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his Head and a Sword in his Hand. Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Clouds reaching to Moses, to express that he acts by Command of the Deity.

"Motto, Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God."

However the Judeo-Christian defenders often ignore the other two pagan proposals. John Adams' allusion to Greco-Roman paganism:

John Adams chose the allegorical painting known as the "Judgment of Hercules" where the young Hercules must choose to travel either on the flowery path of self-indulgence or ascend the rugged, uphill way of duty to others and honor to himself.

And Thomas Jefferson's mixture of Old Testament Israel with Anglo-Saxon paganism:

Thomas Jefferson also suggested allegorical scenes. For the front of the seal: children of Israel in the wilderness, led by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. For the reverse: Hengist and Horsa, the two brothers who were the legendary leaders of the first Anglo-Saxon settlers in Britain.

Overall I see these proposals as representing an enlightenment rationalist worldview that thought man's reason could pick and choose from the various tales of antiquity, be they biblical or pagan the "rational" parts that supported the Whig-republican worldview. As Noah Webster put it describing how this synthesis impacted the formation of the US Constitution:

IN the formation of our constitution, the wisdom of all ages is collected--the legislators of antiquity [Rowe: Webster names Fohi, Confucius, Solon, Lycurgus, Numa, Mango Capac, Zamolxis and Odin] are consulted--as well as the opinions and interests of the millions who are concerned. In short, in it an empire of reason.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Of course, Noah Webster changes his mind later in life, perhaps seeing the limits of pure reason.

I am always puzzled by claims for the Enlightenment in the Founding because I'm not entirely sure what the Enlightenment is. Most conspicuous by his absence in the lists of Founding influences is David Hume. Hume's empiricism most closely resembles the philosophical stance of most "rationalists" today---if you can't prove it, it doesn't exist.

Now, Hume does allow for a law of nature and of nature's God, although his God is of the distant unconcerned sort, a Creator-only, if you will. The Big G sets the ball in motion and the laws of nature are universal, not particular.

"Shall we assert that the Almighty has reserved to himself in any peculiar manner the disposal of the lives of men, and has not submitted that event, in common with others, to the general laws by which the universe is governed? This is plainly false; the lives of men depend upon the same laws as the lives of all other animals; and these are subjected to the general laws of matter and motion."

As we can see, this sentiment excludes any notion of divine providence, the sort that intervened on behalf of the new America nation, the sort that requires religious belief [and did on the part of the Founders], and is not derivable by reason.

"I have lived, Sir, a long time and the longer I live the more convincing proof I see of this truth: that God governs the affairs of men. If a sparrow cannot fall without His notice, is it possible that an empire can rise without His aid?"---Ben Franklin, citing Matthew 10:29.

Now we might say that Franklin indeed uses "reason" to deduce a providential God here; even if that's true, the Enlightenment is all over the map on the Biggest Question of All and is far less useful than Judeo-Christianity or even Stoicism, systems that presuppose that God.

Empire of "reason" then, means something quite different in the olden days than it does in this age of empiricism, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins. I'll add that most of those folks conclude that any form of religion, Judeo-Christianity for instance, exiled reason for unquestioning faith long ago, but the rabbinic tradition as well as the work of the Church fathers like Augustine and especially Aquinas [and the "Scholastics"] call that impression into serious question.

Those who don't know the Judaic and Christian traditions cannot know their effect on the development of the notions of liberty and human rights as we know them today. "Reason," with no fixed starting point, can lead anywhere, but a providential God Who lets not a sparrow fall without His notice points in only one general direction, if not specifically to liberty, certainly to "human rights."

Pinky said...

Tom's comments seem reasonable enough to me. I enjoyed the original post.
But, I'm struck with the thought that the study of the birth and growth of Western Civilization brings us to a place where we see the United States of America as an evolved society based on intrinsic values concerned men wanted to conserve for posterity. I think it was France's Charles DeGalle who said, "America is the daughter of Europe who has left home and will never come back."
As long as we are talking about starting points, then we should not pass over the evolutionary process since any particular beginning. We cannot go back to a starting point and disregard the time between then and now. Christianity has had a great influence on our society. And, so has ancient Greece and Rome. Hopefully, we have garnered and employ the best of all influences.
To paraphrase what the god, Jehovah, had to say, American Is That Which It Is. It is that which it is coming to be--always growing to be greater and greater.
BTW, the Neo-Cons would just as soon trash the reality of our history to make it agree with their ideologies--whatever they are. And, don't forget, their main tool is deception as in the means justify the end.

Jonathan Rowe said...


You are certainly correct that America's Enlightenment was not the hard core atheistic or even deistic Enlightenment of Hume, Voltaire, or Rousseau. It was a more moderate Lockean and Scottish Enlightenment. However, there still may be some tension there between the moderate Enlightenment and "Judeo-Christianity."

I associate Enlightenment with man's reason being the ultimate trump.

The Founders certainly used Providentialism as a starting point. And probably mistakenly believed the existence of God is ascertainable by reason (they used the argument through existence and design; as Joe Carter is fond of noting the Enlightenment rationalists, even Voltaire were proponents of "intelligent design").

The following quotation which I'm sure you've seen by John Adams well sums up their rational Providentialism:

"To him who believes in the Existence and Attributes physical and moral of a God, there can be no obscurity or perplexity in defining the Law of Nature to be his wise benign and all powerful Will, discovered by Reason."

– John Adams to Thomas Boylston Adams, March 19, 1794. Adams Papers (microfilm), reel 377, Library of Congress. Seen in James H. Hutson’s, “The Founders on Religion,” p. 132.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Jon, Aquinas said pretty much the same thing with one caveat: Revelation informs reason above and beyond what it can achieve on its own. The result is the great nation you live in.

I have asked my empiricist friends to "prove" human rights or account for the virtue of mercy. I have looked long and hard for "philosophers" to be able to do the same, although Immanuel Kant gets [unsatisfyingly] close.

The best I have found is the late philosopher Richard Rorty---a patently honest man---simply admitting that "freeloading atheists" owe their liberty to the Judeo-Christian tradition.

More on all that when proper time arises. I like to drop little hints for the careful reader, so I don't always come as a bolt from the blue. There's much more to this Judeo-Christian thing than thumbing through a dusty KJV.

bpabbott said...


Your comment is giving me a deeper understanding of your perspective. Thank for that.

Tom: >>I am always puzzled by claims for the Enlightenment in the Founding because I'm not entirely sure what the Enlightenment is. Most conspicuous by his absence in the lists of Founding influences is David Hume. Hume's empiricism most closely resembles the philosophical stance of most "rationalists" today---if you can't prove it, it doesn't exist."<<

I think a more proper description is that empiricists do not pass over evidence in favor or doctrine ... and in some cases (such as myself) pass judgement on the likelihood of claims for which no evidence exists. There are instances where no evidence can exist, for such examples your words "it doesn't exist" suits me quite well.

Regarding the term "rationalists" ... I've never liked it. The vast majority of theists are rational, and there are certainly irrational atheists. Thus the term smack of ideological judgmental prejudice.

Regarding "reason", I do agree that many of the empirical persuasion frame it in a uniquely modern way, which I also think is nothing more than ideological judgmental prejudice.

Such things remind me of my days studying mathematics ... where debates between pure and applied types looked remarkably similar.

What I think is important is that we reach proper conclusions/answers. The path we take is only relevant in that it be congruent with our nature, principles, and capabilities.

... I think the Adam's quote offered by Jon illustrates this position quite well.

Tom Van Dyke said...

And Rorty's, too, Ben: that America exists at all proves the value of papering over differences in favor of a low common denominator. [Mixed metaphor, that.]

But only to a point. Our contemporary fault lines extend not just to "human rights," but even to the question "what is human?"

See the reputed ethicist Dr. Peter Singer. I freely admit I lack a "rational" reply to his thesis.

bpabbott said...

Tom: "I have asked my empiricist friends to "prove" human rights or account for the virtue of mercy. I have looked long and hard for "philosophers" to be able to do the same, although Immanuel Kant gets [unsatisfyingly] close."

Tom, I'm confused by these words. Do you mean to imply that your mind does not reveal to you the virtue of mercy or the existence of human rights. Do you actually need to be told these things by an authority before they can occur to you or before you can accept them?

Tom Van Dyke said...

As you can see, Ben, I anticipated your very proper question in my last reply, no doubt written coevally with your latest. I have no answer to Peter Singer without cheating and dragging in the Judeo-Christian tradition, if not the Bible itself. His position is entirely logical.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Singer's position is entirely logical if you blur the moral distinction between man and animal. I do believe that Jaffa argues you can distinguish between man & animal thru reason alone, without appeal to the Judeo-Christian tradition. I recall my blogfather Timothy Sandefur addressing this issue where he notes the moral distinction IS the rational faculties that human's possess and animal's lack.

That being said, I don't mind, to get out of Singer's dillema, if we assume arguendo, a moral distinction among God, man and animal (i.e., supra-rational, rational, and sub-rational). However, I don't see us as needing to accept all of the "baggage" that comes with that tradition (i.e., all of the things about the tradition whether written in the Bible or adopted as official Church doctrine based on the natural law).

I suppose this is one reason why I stress Jefferson as the poster boy for the expositor of American human rights. He was no atheist and did indeed believe rights come from God (or loosely from the "Judeo-Christian" tradition). Yet, he rejected every single tenet of orthodox Christianity and large parts of the Bible. This shows you can posit the necessary Imago Dei without at all holding conventional or traditional religious beliefs.

As an agnostic I kinda like the idea that we are all created in God's image or are all His children. This certainly isn't atheism or materialism; but it's entirely consistent with, for instance, liberal cafeteria Christianity that believes God created gay people qua gay people. It's certainly consistent with the sentiments of this Neil Young song.

Tom Van Dyke said...

As Nino Scalia decisively points out in my latest post, Jon, let's simply admit we're arguing from poetry then. But whose poetry?

Prof. Singer is not so easily skirted around, though. The "rational faculties that humans possess and animal's lack" are more apparent in a two-year old dog than a two-week old human infant [or some mentally-impaired adult ones, for that matter]. On the grounds of "consciousness," Singer votes for the dog.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Maybe Singer is right.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Emphasis on maybe. I've learned that the philosophic mind must learn to resist the reductio ad absurdum at all costs.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Oh, Singer's quite serious, in that PETA sorta way.

If you come up with any refutations that don't involve stipulating a bunch of stuff you seem disinclined to stipulate, Jon, I'm anxious to know them. Me, I got nuthin'.

Already, Counselor, you've stipulated God, and opened the door to poetry per Scalia as well as the Book of Genesis per imago Dei. I'd like to see you try your luck with Mr. Kuznicki, as his ilk are really those I'm rehearsing these arguments for.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Well perhaps I should bring Kuznicki and Timothy Sandefur (or perhaps Julian Sanchez and Will Wilkinson, though the latter two probably wouldn't busy themselves with us) in. They are inclined to argue their position in an explicitly atheistic way. And I know Sandefur has addressed these issues in the past.

I'll have more to say on Scalia later.

Jonathan Rowe said...

The bottom line with Scalia is: He aptly notes the constitutional buck has to stop somewhere. And he stops it at the text of the Constitution unmoored by the text of the DOI, and read through the lens of democratic majoritarianism.

Well, there is "originalist" support for reading the text of the DOI, complete with its unalienable right to liberty, into the organic law of the US. And there is also textual support in the Constitution that contradicts his democratic majoritarianism view: see the 9th Amendment and the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the 14th. Randy Barnett does an excellent job showing that the original meaning of both the 9th and P or I of the 14th relate to that very "unalienable right" to political liberty found in the DOI. Wow. This is like the first thing I blogged about 4 years ago when I guess blogged at Sandefur's Freespace. Maybe it's time to tweak them into American Creation posts.

Pinky said...

J.R. writes, "I've learned that the philosophic mind must learn to resist the reduction ad absurdum at all costs."
Interesting comment. Do you know about Leo Strauss?

Jonathan Rowe said...

Yes very much so.

Pinky said...

Don't Straussianists teach the idea that history must give way to philosophy?

Jonathan Rowe said...

That's a big can of worms right there. They believe privately everything must give way to philosophy and hence, learn to overcome your fear of the reductio ad absurdum (but that would justify X!). But publicly they believe "reason" and "revelation" have a right to assert themselves as "truth" even if that "truth" ends up being a "noble lie" fit for public consumption.

Pinky said...

Their philosophy prevents them from learning from history.
So, they are doomed to repeat the failures of the past.

Tom Van Dyke said...

As I've spent the last several years studying Strauss, Pinky, all I can say is that I agree with Claes Ryn's scholarly objections to some of his work, but Ryn is completely ignorant about the "neo-cons" and Strauss' influence on them.

I'll also say that what Strauss seems to be saying at any one point might be exactly what he's arguing against. Like the Bible, you just can't thumb through him and pick out a sentence or a paragraph and claim to have any knowledge or understanding of the whole.

That said, because it's established in modern American folklore that Leo Strauss is the satanic godfather of the neo-cons who lied us into the invasion of Iraq, I seldom even mention his name on general-public comments boards or even my pieces on various blogs.

Suffice to say that Leo Strauss himself, in his seminal "Natural Right and History," openly mocked the Wilsonian ideal of "making the world safe for democracy." That's neo-conism in a nutshell.

Strauss thought the timeless problems of mankind are indeed timeless, and he took a far longer view of history than those who believe in human "progress."

Jim Sweeney said...

Isn't more reasonable to suppose that the founders started with the idea of the polity they wanted and took whatever justifications they could find from the variety of traditions available to them?

They were politicians in practice, trained, if at all, as lawyers, and they were making arguments supporting agreements secured through negotiation, not philosophers speculating freely.

In this view, there was a general consensus that broad human rights were desirable, while there may not have been general agreement on the grounds for those beliefs, which suggests that we can't rely on the founders to fight our battles. We have to fight them ourselves, as they did.

Corvids - crows, ravens, magpies, jays - are very, very smart. I've got stories. Last time I checked Wikipedia, their intelligence was compared to our cousin apes. Does that mean we shouldn't eat crow?

Pinky said...

Hah! I ordered Claes Ryn's book, A Common Human Ground, just last week.
I am intrigued with Strauss's influence on our thinking.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Good one, Mr. Sweeney.

As for Claes Ryn, I like him but he's totally wrong about the neo-cons and modern history. Philosophic scholars should stick to what they know best.

Brad Hart said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brad Hart said...

TVD stated:

"I am always puzzled by claims for the Enlightenment in the Founding because I'm not entirely sure what the Enlightenment is."

If we want to know what the founders thought of the Enlightenment -- not that they necessarily thought of themselves in an enlightenment per se -- the very best source is "The Spirit of Laws" by Montesquieu. Most of the mainstream founders -- particularly Franklin, Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton -- put a tremendous amount of emphasis on Montesquieu's work. There are a number of historians who argue that "The Spirit of Laws" is probably the most influential work on our Constitution and republican government.

For me, "The Spirit of Laws" is the quintessential Enlightenment source. Montesquieu's take on government, religion, etc. is, for, me, the crowning book of the Enlightenment.

With this in mind, I cannot see how the Enlightenment did NOT have an impact on the Revolution.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I like Montesquieu. Philosopher, or merely an ace at political science?

Brad Hart said...


Tom Van Dyke said...

John Locke was a political theorist as well as a philosopher. It's quite easy to bifurcate his work. Pls do make the case for Montesquieu-as-philosopher, Brad. I don't see it yet.

Brian Tubbs said...

From one of Jon's earlier posts...

"...And probably mistakenly believed the existence of God is ascertainable by reason..."

This belief was a mistake?????? How?

bpabbott said...

Jon: "...And probably mistakenly believed the existence of God is ascertainable by reason..."

Brian: "This belief was a mistake??????"

I'd inferred that Jon was referring to a belief that a proper conclusion of God's existence could be ascertained by reason, with that conclusion meaning we'd know ... not just believe God exists.

As there can be no certain conclusion as to the existence or nature of God, any claim that God's existence is ascertainable by any method/manner is in error.

God's existence is not something anyone can know, it is something to be believed ... relying upon faith.

Dave2 said...

Maybe I'm missing something here, but didn't Hume's "Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth" have a pretty major impact on Madison's Federalist no. 10?

And if I'm to take seriously, Hume was the 5th most cited author in the writings of the Founders.

And look at that list some more if you want to see some heavy-duty Enlightenment influence: Montesquieu, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Bolingbroke, Voltaire -- I mean, if they're not the Enlightenment, I give up.

I must be missing something.

Pinky said...

Thanks to Dave2 for the link.
They'll keep me out of mischief for a while.

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