Saturday, May 30, 2009

Alissa Wilkinson's Article on American Political Theology

Check out this great article at Patrol Magazine by Alissa Wilkinson, a graduate student at NYU, on American political theology that references "theistic rationalism."

Here is a taste:

The secularists—the most dogmatic “separation of church and state” folks—insist the Founders were Deists with little interest in organized religion, working toward a neutral, secular state where religion would have no influence in governance or policy-making. Equally noisy are the “Christian America” proponents, who insist that the Founders were devout Christians with explicit faith in Jesus Christ and established a governmental system based on Biblical principles. Any attempt to extricate governance from these principles is an attempt to destroy the very foundations of the country. References to “God” and “Providence” in the founding documents, such as the Federalist Papers and the Declaration of Independence, are explicit and intentional references to similar evangelical concepts.

What’s confusing is that both camps can support their view with books, films, seminars, scholarly works, magazine articles, and more, all with direct quotations from the Founders themselves. And obviously, both sides can’t be right. So when it comes to the ever-raging debates about the foundations of our nation, which side should Christians take?

[...]

In [Gregg Frazer's] doctoral dissertation and some subsequent work, he says—I believe rightly—that these men were neither secularist Deists nor evangelical Christians, but “theistic rationalists,”...

To theistic rationalists, God would not do anything that they would not admire in the behavior of man. Order and morality were the highest virtues. Men had a free will and the ability to be moral, and God ultimately desired all men to live happily.

[...]

Religion was important to society in that it promoted morality—and thereby happiness—but the particular religion was relatively unimportant. Because the ultimate goal was a moral society, rather than one in which the “correct” religion was promoted, the Founders created an environment that recognized but did not impose or restrict the role of religion in society. (It’s worth noting that several Christian denominations opposed this idea of freedom of religion, since it would allow many people to practice religions that they did not believe led to the truth.)

...[T]he end result of this emphasis on morality and freedom was that theistic rationalism became the de facto national religion. Most people in early America identified with a Christianity of some stripe, and so these principles also became woven into the fabric of American Christianity and the dominant public desire for morality and order....Only when postmodernism erupted and new voices spoke out in the public sphere—minorities, women, people of other religions or no religion at all—were they challenged, spawning the debate that still rages today.

With this in mind, we can begin to understand the flaws in the views of those on both sides of the debate. Some of the most influential Founders did in fact believe in the value of religion for a moral, organized society—which weakens the position of the secularists. But they also did not believe that a theologically orthodox Christianity was the only or even the best option for promoting that society—undermining those who would have us believe we’re citizens of a “Christian nation.”

27 comments:

Pinky said...

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:<)

Tom Van Dyke said...

References to “God” and “Providence” in the founding documents, such as the Federalist Papers and the Declaration of Independence, are explicit and intentional references to similar evangelical concepts...

Evangelical concepts?

Who claims that? This is complete nonsense, and there are many other clever turns of phrase in this essay that frame the debate unfairly.

undermining those who would have us believe we’re citizens of a “Christian nation.”..

More nonsense, and an unnecessary narrowing of the debate. As usual, the principle of federalism is overlooked, which not only left religion to the states, but it's in the state laws about everyday life that the Bible had the most influence.

A very sophistic essay, which unfortunately many will swallow uncritically. But a fine example of the sophistic art, I'll give it that.

King of Ireland said...

The Author stated:

"Not only that, but we lazily identify Christianity with a particular political system, rather than carefully examining the Bible to determine how we should understand and participate in various spheres of society—economics, politics, morality, etc."

Sounds good to me and puts into concise and clear language what I think the frame of the discussion needs to shift to at least among Christians. But since establishing justice and righteousness on earth is a pretty common goal in most societies and religions I think it is something that could unite us all in that we can search for right reason.

Also, any Christian that claims that there is not truth in other religions is ignorant. For sure certain things do conflict but much of it does not have to. I think the question comes down to:

Who is God?
What does he want me to do?

According the Acts Paul saw God and asked those two questions. He stopped killing people that did not agree with him soon afterward. I think we spend so much time on question #2 that we miss the first question.

King of Ireland said...

I did not mean to leave out that other philosophies have truth as well. I am starting to think that relativism vs. right reason is going to be the real debate of the 21st Century.

It goes back to the Garden of Eden. My reading is that all the things Eve sought in eating the fruit were worthwhile except that she sought to decide right and wrong for herself apart from God. This is the first seed of relativism in my opinion. Most people teach that she was wrong for wanting to be like God. God made them to be like him in His image. So the problem had to be something else.

Pinky said...

Who is God?

What does he want me to do?

.... I think we spend so much time on question #2 that we miss the first question.
Excellent point. Thanks for making it.
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King of Ireland said...

Tom,

I like what you stated:

"More nonsense, and an unnecessary narrowing of the debate. As usual, the principle of federalism is overlooked, which not only left religion to the states, but it's in the state laws about everyday life that the Bible had the most influence."

I had never thought of this but have been trying to really drive home the concept of Federalism to my students as we go through World History where it comes up a lot. How about a post from you on this topic. I think it brings up some really important points we seem to dismiss today to our peril.

Pinky said...

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It goes back to the Garden of Eden..
And, MY reading is that THIS is the Garden of Eden. Who could want for anything more. We are gifted with the experience of being included in on the reality that is life.
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Look around you and recognize the wonder of existence. We are part of it. Why on Earth would we ever want to not experience it as a wonderful gift?
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I have a hard time accepting limits of what there is to enjoy and experience in Eden.
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Except for those who know the difference between good and evil and make such a point of it.
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Tom Van Dyke said...

Thank you K of I. I wrote here about the attempt to minimize Christianity's affect on the Founding by limiting it to the Bible and here on Joseph Story's landmark study of the Constitution, which touches on federalism.


I am starting to think that relativism vs. right reason is going to be the real debate of the 21st Century...

I couldn't agree more. And let's keep in mind that "right reason" isn't necessarily religious---the idea goes back to the ancient Greek philosophers.

bpabbott said...

Tom/King,

I'm curious.

Can you provide some more background on what is meant by "right reason"?

Perhaps a link on the subject?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Nothing jumps out at me on a google. It's an all-pervasive concept common to most pre-modern philosophy.

“There is a true law, a right reason, conformable to nature, universal, unchangeable, eternal, whose commands urge us to duty, and whose prohibitions restrain us from evil.” (Cicero, De Re Publica, Book III).

bpabbott said...

ok, Thanks!

I like Cicero.

King of Ireland said...

bpabbot,

I would add that I think Romans 1 talks about this when it says that man would be held accountable to God, apart from the Torah, because of Conscience and what has been made. I think both refer to some sort of natural law. This would seem to be confirmed by 2;14 says that the that the Gentiles who do what is required by the law(Torah) without it are righteous. Since it would seem to take right reason to achieve right actions then I think it would apply.

This goes back to my previous comment. I would say right reason about who God is would lead to right actions. Of course this leaves out a vital discussion of the heart and the role of reason in core motivations. Repentance means a change of mind though about God. I would gather that the whole context of Romans 1 is in the light of God's qualities being observable through what is made would imply that a reasoned response to things that reveal his qualities would be considered repentance.

In short, I ask again. Why do we all spend some much time on question #2 below at the expense of #1:

1. Who is God?
2. What does HE want us to do?

I think right reason would lead to a genuine understanding of number 1. Keep in mind this comes from someone who has little understanding of the enlightenment teachings on natural law and right reason. Tom knows more about that. I am not sure if it the same thing or not.

King of Ireland said...

I should add that this in contingent on one thinking that there is truth found in the Bible.

bpabbott said...

King,

I agree that "right reason" should lead to right actions, provided we are right in our reasoning.

Whether God exists or not, there is still the problem with any individual possessing the cognitive skill and knowledge to reach such ultimate understanding. Thus, the aspiration for "right reason" is to reach for what will always remain beyond the grasp of those with finite cognitive skill and knoweldge.

Regarding "What God would have us do"; I see that as what would be the most constructive action in the given situation ... or do you mean something else. In any event, seeking to make the best decision possible is a religious pursuit that nearly all aspire to with out regard the flavor of their faith ... including those with no supernaturarl belief at all. Thus, I don't see how (1) has any relevance to (2).

But then, perhaps, I don't understand what you intend by "Who is God?".

King of Ireland said...

I am coming from a more theological than philosophical bent here. I used to be an athiest so I know where you are coming from. That is why I made the last comment about if you believe the Bible.

If not, then I would guess one would be regulated by conscience. The question would then be where it comes from? I am not well versed in the philosophy and pyschology that is relevant here maybe Tom can chime in.

I do think that the person who sees natural law being derived from God and the person that sees it derived from something else can work toward the same goals for different reasons. I believe in inalienable rights and I believe you do as well. I believe them come from the God of the Bible. You believe they come from elsewhere. We can still work toward the same goals.

King of Ireland said...

I missed your question about 1 and 2 connecting. I would go back to what I said about Eve and the fruit. She wanted to be like God. That was ok in my mind because God made her in His image. In other words to be like Him. It is my take(I would have to write more to prove it from a Biblical standpoint than I can here) that she went wrong when she sought this things apart from God.

It says she wanted wisdom to know right and wrong. I cannot remember if I ever looked this up in Hebrew but I would take this to mean that she wanted the ability to decide this for herself. The connect of 1 and 2 above would be the need of God to know what is right and wrong.

Yes in any given situation to clarify another question you asked. I am thinking out load as I write this so sorry if I am not as clear as I should be.

bpabbott said...

King comments: "I do think that the person who sees natural law being derived from God and the person that sees it derived from something else can work toward the same goals for different reasons. I believe in inalienable rights and I believe you do as well. I believe them come from the God of the Bible. You believe they come from elsewhere. We can still work toward the same goals."

Kudos from me to you!

I agree completely. It is not necessary *how* we come to our guals, what is important is that we share common goals and can work together to achieve them.

BTW, regarding other atheists, secularists, leftists, rightists, theists, or what not, there are few I agree with. It would appear I'm a streotype of my own making.

King of Ireland said...

"I agree completely. It is not necessary *how* we come to our guals, what is important is that we share common goals and can work together to achieve them."

I think this was probably what the Founders had to do to make a nation. Why people on both extremes cannot see that is crazy. Though maybe they prove Madison in Federalist 10(maybe 51) right when he says that all the factions would cancel each other out and bring synthesis.

That is why I really like the article Jon linked to this post. The part I quoted a few comments back really put into words what I have been mulling over for 2 years now.

Pinky said...

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It's difficult to follow along in any discussion when individuals are not specifically addressed.
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In other words, the warp and weave here tends to confuse the issue.
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We have several points at issue--each deserving of its own thread.
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K.I. sez, "We can still work toward the same goals.".
That appears to be the major problem the Founding Fathers had to face. How do we create a system of governance that allows for our differences?
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And, that is the argument raised by Christian Nationalists who--apparently--want to dictate the path we shall take as we move into the future. THAT is the exact dilemma out of which the Founding Era grew.
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A secular society is the answer--it is pro-choice when it comes to what you can believe and practice in your personal life.
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So, King, you have the support you need to work toward the same goals.
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In all of it, we need an educational institution that supersedes the ideological dictates of some narrowed down definition of reality. And, I believe a secular society is the answer.

King of Ireland said...

Pinky,

I have not heard a good definition of "secular society". What would yours be?

Tom Van Dyke said...

The question becomes, are the goals really the same?


"The practical result, in contemporary jurisprudence, is that...subjectivity trumps morality, freedom trumps natural law, and will trumps deliberation."---Bradley CS Watson

King of Ireland said...

I think the ultimate goal of creating a better society is the same. Obviously, their are ways of getting there. After reading one of your comments about David Barton and his central thesis I went back and read what he had written about what it means to be a Christian Nation. I am still processing what he said but I am in at least some agreement with him and some of his goals.

With that stated, his way of getting there is totally different than mine as first glance. But as a teacher I see the total moral decay that we call school now. These children think they can do whatever they want because they have been taught the world revolves around them and their opinions for years. Values need to be taught again. What values is up for debate.

King of Ireland said...

Tom,

I posted my last comment before I read your linked article. Quite ironic!

Pinky said...

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My definition of a secular society is one that takes no sectarian stand regarding religious beliefs.
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Pinky said...

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K.I. writes, Values need to be taught again. What values is up for debate..
Once again, you've nailed a central issue.
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The fact that "values" can even be taught is questionable in the context of post modern society.
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First off, p.m. appears to stand on the idea that everything is dependent on the present moment. And, the present moment is in constant flux.
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Post Modernism also goes by the name of Post Structuralism which provides a foundationless culture devoid of any organizational rules and standards. All of which means our institutions are in dysfunction, to make a long story short.
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And, each societal institution is built on a foundational value.
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So, now you have it. For society to be in institutional dysfunction means that our values are free floating.
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That's a bitch!
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To put it mildly.
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King of Ireland said...

I would recommend reading the article Tom linked. It talks about this issue. It is from a Conservative perspective but I think puts the tough issues in a good context.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I certainly would have preferred to use a more "neutral" source. However, these ideas, like natural law via Plato and Aristotle [and Cicero] seldom appear in today's "mainsteam" academia any more than in a pass-through. If you'll recall, my Ph.D philosophy prof pal knew nothing of Aquinas atall.

Alissa Wilkinson's own article indicates her studies in philosophy began with the rationalist Descartes [c. 1625]. She apparently knows Derrida but not Cicero, and so the conclusions and narrowness of her argument are unavoidable, as her understanding of Christianity likewise seems to be narrowed to only the Bible and the Jerry Falwells. It's no wonder she accepts Dr. Frazer's thesis uncritically.

She's the product of mainstream academia, of our modern educational system. I honestly don't know after all these years that when stuff like "right reason" comes up, folks are being obtuse or are simply uninformed of the 2500 years of human thought before Descartes and modern philosophy. Regardless, it's no wonder they don't or can't see their far more profound influence on the Founding, or how modern philosophy has taken us away from its first principles.