Friday, September 19, 2008

Pledging Allegiance to the Philosophers' God

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.


The strongest argument for letting the "under God" in the pledge pass constitutional muster is that natural rights Founding era documents invoke such a God, and as such, making a public recitation of the Declaration of Independence unconstitutional would yield perverse results. [And the other side properly notes making a group of people "pledge allegiance" to a God has a coercive element that would be missing from mere government endorsement of the theistic Declaration of Independence.]

Kevin Hasson, founder and president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, whom we've seen debate Michael Newdow, makes what I think a very good historical and philosophical argument for his side. And that is the God of natural rights is the God of nature, not the God of the Bible or not necessarily the God of the Bible. America's Founders believed in granting religious freedom for all. And they reasoned, you couldn't have religious freedom if the natural rights source for that unalienable right was a sectarian (i.e., "Christian") deity. Hence the invocation of a generic, non-sectarian deity: Nature's God.

The term "nature" as was used during America's Founding era (and still today) meant discoverable by reason as opposed to revealed by scripture and as such, "Nature's God" is God insofar as we can discern His existence and determine His attributes from reason unassisted by revelation. (See the above Adams' quotation.)

It's amusing to see one of Roy Moore's cronies struggle with this conception. He quotes the New York Sun article:

[T]he God in the pledge is the same God referred to in the Declaration of Independence, but is not the deity in the Bible. “It wasn’t the Christian God. It wasn’t the Jewish God. It was the philosopher’s God,” Mr. Hasson said. He said the “under God” reference refers to a creator early philosophers and scientists like Aristotle concluded “could be known by reason alone.”


And he reacts:

Mr. Hasson has the honor of making an argument that I can unequivocally state I have never heard in any previous Establishment Clause case. He is actually claiming that the God referenced in the Pledge is not the God of the Bible, but rather is some amorphous “philosopher’s God.”


That Mr. Jones has never heard of this argument before simply shows that he hasn't done his homework. He either hasn't studied the historical documents on this issue, or if he has, his analysis is confused by the specious arguments put forth by the likes of Roy Moore.

It would be a mistake, however, to try to exclude the Biblical God from this conception. Rather, a prime reason why America's Founders turned to "nature" and not "scripture" to ground America's public creed was to be inclusive. Natural theology was a lingua franca (a link language) in which orthodox trinitarians, unitarians, theistic rationalists and deists all could speak.

For a good place to learn how the Founding era viewed the concept of "natural religion" (that is what man can discern about God's universe through reason unassisted by scripture), google the terms "natural religion" and "Dudleian Lectures." As will be seen, some orthodox trinitarian Christians did promote the concept of "natural religion," for instance Samuel Langdon, John Witherspoon, and many others. But when they indulged in this theology, note, they stayed true to its method, which was, again, what man discovers from reason unassisted by revelation. When orthodox Christians indulged in natural theology, they found reason and revelation perfectly agreed. Deists, on the other hand, found that natural theology didn't at all agree with what is revealed in scripture. And theistic rationalist/unitarians found that sometimes reason and revelation agreed, sometimes they didn't.

But in the end, natural theology is defined as what man discovers from reason, and when it came time to declare independence, America turned to the laws of nature and nature's God, not what is revealed in scripture.

13 comments:

Phil Johnson said...

The problem with the "philosopher's god" is that our government is forbidden from defining any god one way or the other.
.
In the meantime, members of the religious right claim they know who that god is--it's Jehovah God--the One in the Bible.
.
So? We're stuck.
.

Charles said...

To elaborate on a previous, somewhat vague comment re revelation, here is the problem I have with natural law/rights defined as "the Law of Nature - his wise benign and all powerful Will, discovered by Reason". Either one assumes man's reason (defined exactly how?) is adequate to the task of making laws that comport with that "Will" or it isn't.

If one assumes man's reason is inadequate, what - other than perhaps some emotional comfort - is added by assuming that it comes from God? I don't see that assumption having any consequential import. We may get it right or we may get it wrong, but we'll never know which (the classical problem of finding a platform from which to objectively view "truth").

If one assumes it is adequate, why isn't the result merely revelation with a "middle man" - we don't get our laws/rights directly from God but instead we get infallible reason from Him which allows us to "discover" them. In which case, a question arises equivalent to the one which arises with respect to revelation: which competing claimant really has the infallible reason? Again, our choice may be right or it may be wrong, but we'll never know which.

Perhaps it is due to an unsophisticated understanding of the natural law/rights concept, but so far I don't see that it resolves any practical problems.

- Charles

Tom Van Dyke said...

Sorry, Jonathan, I don't think you've earned any victory dance over "Roy Moore crony" Greg Jones. I don't think you've laid a glove on him, unless you count the theological dilettante John Adams, which I don't.


Jon, you write "that Mr. Jones never heard of this argument [the philosopher's God] before simply shows that he hasn't done his homework."

He didn't write that. He wrote "Mr. Hasson has the honor of making an argument that I can unequivocally state I have never heard in any previous Establishment Clause case."

Jones addresses the argument directly, noting that

Even Common Sense author Thomas Paine, who later wrote diatribes against Christianity (for which he was castigated in America), stated in his infamous Age of Reason that, “I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.” Belief in the afterlife is not a deist doctrine.

Tom Paine's God is the closest among all the Founders to "the philosopher's God" [they were mostly appalled], yet still, Paine's belief in an afterlife doesn't pass "philosopher" muster. Philosophers don't "hope," they reason.


I recommend this well-argued and well-documented article to everyone here, which is a first for me. It contains the best and most comprehensive collection of original sources I've seen from that side of the issue. Agree or disagree, they aren't easy pickins like the sophistries and misquotes of many of the "Christian Nationists."

bpabbott said...

Jon,

Good points regarding the nature of "God" in the Declaration of Independence.

Although I've one quibble.

Jon: "The strongest argument for letting the "under God" in the pledge pass constitutional muster is that natural rights Founding era documents invoke such a God, and as such, making a public recitation of the Declaration of Independence unconstitutional would yield perverse results."

I don't think the and the Declaration of Independence and the Pledge of Allegiance are comparable in this way. The first explains the motives of men to disavow themselves of a tyrannical government and the latter's purpose is one of indoctrination and coercion.

The claim/suggestion/implication/inference that removing the religiously coercive words from the Pledge of Allegiance is a prelude to an attack on the Declaration of Independence is wholly improper (imo). The DOI represents the sentiments of individuals who sought liberty, while the Pledge of Allegiance is arguably incongruent with the sentiments of liberty and its sacredness which the DOI supposes to support .... I take this position while understanding that the pledge is intended to be a testament to and is written in support of the sentiments of liberty. It is its application by the government to indoctrinate and coerce that should be confronted (imo).

Personally, I don't think it is likely that words of the Pledge of Allegiance are sufficient to expose a breach of the First Amendment. However, the I do hold the position that the governments application of it is a violation of the Establishment Clause and am hopeful the court will agree (I am also hopeful the case will be argued on such a basis).

In short, I don't think the meat of your post is relevant to the pledge. It appears to me that you've mixed up separate issues. Which would be out of character ... what have I missed?

bpabbott said...

Charles: "Perhaps it is due to an unsophisticated understanding of the natural law/rights concept, but so far I don't see that it resolves any practical problems."

If I get your point, I'd agree it doesn't necessarily solve any practical philosophical problems (oxymoron?), but does avoid a violation of the First Amendment.

Charles said...

At the very least one has to credit Mr. Jones with integrity. He hypothesizes that Mr. Hasson's invocation of the "philosopher's god" is a ruse to get around the obvious problem if the god we're "under" (whatever that might mean) is instead the Christian God, shows pretty conclusively that (surprise!) it is in fact the latter, and then says essentially "even if we lose this battle, let's forthrightly proclaim that that is precisely the "god" of the pledge.

Mr. Jones must be a Democrat - stick to your principles even if doing so results in loss after loss after ...

On a more technical note, there seems to be an interesting "originalism" issue lurking here. Mr. Hasson wants to make the god we're "under" the one of the D of I. But under "original meaning" originalism as I understand it, the meaning has to be that understood by "the people" at the time of the adopting of a constitutional provision, or in this case a law. By analogy, shouldn't the god of the pledge be the one understood by "the people" in 1954 rather than in 1776, making Mr. Hasson's argument irrelevant?

- Charles

Dave2 said...

If belief in an afterlife is not a deist doctrine -- if it somehow disqualifies you from being a deist -- then almost everyone that called themselves a 'deist' and almost everyone who was called a 'deist' by others, it turns out, do not count as deists after all. Everyone in the 1600-1700s was misusing the word 'deist'.

But this is a obviously absurd result. Therefore, belief in an afterlife does not disqualify one from being a deist.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Dave, the term "deist" quickly gets unhelpful. The philosopher's God---and this is often taken to mean Aristotle's---is remote. Neither does reason---philosophy---derive an afterlife.

You'd be surprised how many people run deism and the philosopher's God into confusion, even writers at major metropolitan newspapers.

bpabbott said...

Charles: "[...] there seems to be an interesting "originalism" issue lurking here. Mr. Hasson wants to make the god we're "under" the one of the D of I. But under "original meaning" originalism as I understand it, the meaning has to be that understood by "the people" at the time of the adopting of a constitutional provision, or in this case a law. By analogy, shouldn't the god of the pledge be the one understood by "the people" in 1954 rather than in 1776 [...]"

Excellent point ... and I understand the answer to be yes.

One caveat, those in 1954 may have intended the mention of the word God to respect that of American in the later 18th century, but given that the motive was to suppress communist sentiment. However, it seems quite unlikely to me.

bpabbott said...

Dave,

Regarding deists and the claim of an after life, the question is whether Deism is a variety of Theism or vice vera.

Thoughts?

Brian Barker said...

As far as a lingua franca is concerned I think the World needs a lingua franca as well.

An interesting video can be seen at http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8837438938991452670

Failing that http://www.lernu might help

Tom Van Dyke said...

I think this "lingua franca" thing should be French. All civilized people speak it these days.

bpabbott said...

Tom: "I think this "lingua franca" thing should be French. All civilized people speak it these days."

There are plenty of French speakers who are uncivilized and many civilized people who do not understand a word of it.

What is it about speaking French that is so exclusively civil so as to exclude all others as being qualified as civilized?